In Western contexts haunted by the ghosts of Christendom, going public with Christian faith, let alone Christian worship, seems absurd and unthinkable. Attempts to repristinate ancient stational liturgies could appear foolish, impractical, and even offensive. But must we completely forfeit the public character of Christian faith and worship in our pluralistic cities?
Might there be something within these ancient street liturgies that could inform our contemporary engagement with modern thoroughfares and marketplaces?
Prayer Train in Nairobi
On a southbound train to Nairobi, Kenya, you can find Pastor Helen Wangui Tiphy and her husband, Bishop Joseph Tiphy Gachuhi. Amidst a crowded coach of commuters, these two pastors preach and lead communal prayers and songs. Their unique train-based liturgy began in 1998 when “a group of Christians traveling to work together on the train decided to start a group and received permission to use the carriage to worship, pray, and sing.” Since then, the train’s “Fellowship Coach” is used every morning and evening for this worship gathering.
The reason for the growth of this commuter worship service, says Pastor Wangui Tiphy, is that it meets the needs of people trying to cope with the stresses of life, unemployment, overwork, and despair. And this touch point for commuters between work, pain, and prayer is the inroad for a public worship service during the daily commute.
Perhaps this example from our Kenyan brothers and sisters will fall on deaf ears in the United States. Perhaps it seems too audacious and “churchy” for our culture today. But is the proper response to carry on with our privatized approach to prayer and discipleship? Should we sit on our hands and muffle our ears to the deep pains and hardships of workers moving through our cities? Wouldn’t a better approach be to cultivate public spaces and practices through which workers can carry their vocational pains, petitions, and praises to God in worship?
Could this Happen in New York City?
Take, for example, the New York churches surrounding Wall Street following the financial crisis of 2007. Many worshipers in these congregations worked for the financial firms that either contributed to or were impacted by the subprime mortgage debacle. These workers, no doubt, were processing a wide variety of emotions, from guilt and shame, to sadness and anger, to fear and confusion.
Imagine that a collective prayer walk had been organized to snake its way through the city’s financial district. Imagine that prayers of confession and lament had been offered—prayers for the families affected by the crisis; prayers for repentance, economic transformation, and protection; prayers for the pensions, jobs, and homes that had been lost. How might this have impacted the workers who participated in this public practice? How might it have impacted the workers who witnessed the procession from the sidewalk?
What About Grand Rapids?
Consider another example. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a growing number of people are biking to work during the warmer months. There have been a number of hit-and-run accidents and biker deaths caused by vehicles in recent years. The city has tried to respond by putting in bike lanes and instituting a mandatory five-foot buffer zone around bicyclists. Could there be an openness in the city to a public blessing of the bikes for divine protection? Could these blessings draw on the old blessing of the ships still practiced today in some maritime communities? If God blessed our coming and going then, could he do the same today?
While these examples should not be copied woodenly, the publicness of these ancient (and contemporary) street liturgies should inform the prayerful ways in which we move through our streets and markets.
Cory B. Willson (PhD, Vrije Universiteit and Fuller Theological Seminary) is Jake and Betsy Tuls Associate Professor of Missiology and Missional Ministry and directs the Institute for Global Church Planting and Renewal at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.